LAS VEGAS – Police here insist it's not their fault. They say criminals in America's famously anything-goes city are getting more brazen, and officers have had no choice but to shoot 21 people so far this year.
Eleven people have died in police confrontations in 2006. By comparison, Las Vegas police were involved in 13 shootings in all of 2005, nine fatal.
"Every situation needs to be judged on its own merits," said Clark County Sheriff Bill Young, whose 2,118 officers cover the glittering Las Vegas Strip, vast suburban sprawl and remote desert hamlets in an area the size of Massachusetts.
"To say we have a cowboy mentality is just not true," Young said. "No cop goes to work wanting to be involved in one of these."
The number of shootings is not a record. Police shot 41 people in 1974, and 28 in 1978. The department had 30 police shootings in 1986, when the region had fewer than 600,000 residents. Today 1.8 million people call the Las Vegas area home.
But with shootings on a pace to exceed 33 this year, critics worry about whether younger academy grads are too aggressive. Amid a hiring push aimed at raising the number of officers to 2,300, the average age of rookie officers has dropped from 29 in 2001 to 27 today.
They're expected to take command, respond quickly and act appropriately — sometimes forcefully, sometimes gently — in a dizzying array of unpredictable situations in a transient, fast-growing community with a rising crime rate.
Gayle Biggham, 42, teaches her 18-year-old son to keep his hands in plain view if he is stopped by officers, and to be respectful. "I tell him, 'No. Don't run, son. They shoot first and ask questions later."'
Young says that's not fair. He defends department training and officer decision-making in almost every case. But he said the rash of shootings is spurring a departmental review.
"If we're right, we're right, and I'm going to defend it," he said. "If we're wrong, we're not going to fold our arms and make like there isn't room for improvement."
Two cases stand out: the slaying of a handcuffed teen shot in the back while running from homicide detectives in May, and the fatal shooting July 4 of a motorist who police say defied officers' commands to turn down his booming car stereo.
"Right now I think the public is uneasy," said Andrea Beckman, executive director of a police Citizen Review Board, which can recommend departmental discipline for officers.
Samuel Walker, a police policy consultant, author and criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said the sheer number of shootings indicates a problem.
"You need to look at incident review, and look for patterns," Walker said. "It's really about policy, training and supervision."
On Feb. 1, the law enforcement community was shaken when Sgt. Henry Prendes, 37, a popular 14-year police veteran, died in a hail of assault weapons fire while answering a domestic violence call. Police said he was ambushed.
The death weighs heavily on a department in which the last on-duty officer slaying was in 1988.
Las Vegas isn't the only metropolitan area to lose an officer and see a spike in officer-involved shootings this year. In Philadelphia, where an officer was shot and killed in May, 16 people have been killed by police — the most in at least 25 years.
Las Vegas' livelihood depends on a tourist-friendly image as a fun, safe place for 38.5 million visitors a year — not video clips of police shootouts.
Clark County set up a panel last month to review the public hearing process that determines whether police are justified when they kill someone.
Community outrage followed an inquest that cleared two detectives in the May 13 slaying of a 17-year-old murder suspect shot twice in the back while running handcuffed from a detective's car where he had been left unattended.
"We believe definitely that the system is broken," said W. Dean Ishman, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.